Wrestling with Tentacles: Cassandra Khaw and Victor LaValle Take on H.P. Lovecraft

You grow up loving Lovecraft. His stories inspire you to try writing your own weird twisty words, and then one day you come across a letter or an article that explains, in graphic detail, that Mr. Lovecraft thought you were scum. Worse than scum. And now when you look back at his stories you see that you’re not the hero, you’re not even always the villain—you’re just the OTHER. Unknowable and scarier than an eldritch god.

Victor LaValle and Cass Khaw could have rejected Lovecraft. They could have nursed their hurt, or internalized his hatred of them. Or they could take up their own twisty words and challenge him on his own turf. Luckily for us, they chose that last path. In The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle goes up against “The Horror at Red Hook”, and in Hammers on Bone and A Song for Quiet Khaw takes on the squamous mythos as a whole, while also pulling up a chair and talking with LaValle.

Spoilers ahead.

LaValle’s Tommy Tester is a magician of sorts—a young man whose place in society is tenuous at best, who works a glamour on himself to trick affluent white eyes into seeing a scuffed-yet-noble bluesman. In truth, Tommy only knows three or four songs, and he’s not that good at guitar, but he knows that if he looks “authentic” enough, he can rely on white hipsters to chuck a few performative coins in his guitar case. This hustle runs on fine until a brush with black magic cuts him down: he is charged with delivering a page of a book to a woman named Ma Att (any Egyptologists in the house tonight?) but since Tommy is smart, he realizes what that page is, what it means for humanity. And here is his fatal slip: he cares. For just a moment, he cares about the fate of people and society, and he allows that moment of moral clarity, yes, but also weakness, to ruin his own personal life. Because what the fuck has society ever given Tommy Tester? And yet he crosses a dark magician to steal this piece of paper, to keep her from working a spell that would mean mankind’s doom.

His magical hustle catches the eye of eccentric millionaire Roger Suydam, who hires him to play his music at a party, then moves the goalposts repeatedly (the way white, upperclass men can) until Tommy has to talk himself into taking the gig. But it’s a lot of money, and it would buy him and his dad a lot of respect. He goes through with it. He travels out to Roger Suydam’s rambling Brooklyn mansion to rehearse for the gig, as Suydam asked him to, braving the mob of white boys who chase him from the train station, and from whom he can not, as a Black man, defend himself. Suydam works his own magic and takes the two of them Outside—outside time and space, to a realm where communication with the Old Ones is possible.

But in the meantime, remember Tommy’s earlier slip? His moment of compassion has attracted the attention of a pair of cops. One’s an open Southern fried-racist who waxes philosophical about the inferiority of certain people. His name is Howard. The other man, arguably worse, fancies himself an occultist, and thinks Howard’s methods go too far—but also doesn’t actually consider anyone darker than himself truly human. His name is Malone…and Lovecraft fans will remember him from “The Horror at Red Hook.” How to even catalogue their monster natures? Not only do they murder Tommy’s father—“I felt in danger for my life…I emptied my revolver. Then I reloaded it and did it again”—they sit down to discuss their case in Tommy’s father’s kitchen, the man’s body still warm and bleeding a room away, while they wait for Tommy to get home. Not satisfied with that, they taunt Tommy for not taking a swing at them when he’s told the news—as if every black man in America doesn’t learn never to move on a cop, no matter the circumstance? Still to this day, let alone 1920? As if they don’t know that, and then taunt him to trap him in the utter powerlessness and horror of this moment? But maybe the worst part of all is simply that Tommy had been so happy that morning.

Tommy had survived the night, been harassed and threatened by a white mob, and made it all the way home to Harlem, and for the first time in what felt like eternity felt himself surrounded by Black faces and bodies, people who saw him as human, not a monstrous Other, and felt that he had touched back down to what he understood as reality. And he had a nice roll of money in his pocket to pass on to his father, too. Harlem was home, and could shield him from the sneers and hatred of people like Roger Suydam.

And now instead he’s in a new nightmare, in which his father is dead and a pair of white men laugh in his face, the face of his grief. This is the society he saved by crossing Ma Att. These are the people who owe him their lives, without even knowing it.

Cass Khaw’s work is a bit more “fun” at least at the outset, because she employs noir tropes and language that manage to lighten grim topics. In Hammers on Bone, undead gumshoe John Persons agrees to whack a young boy’s step-father—who happens to be possessed by some sort of eldritch terror. Things get complicated, people get double-crossed, and innocent people suffer, as is always the case in noir. But here the noir story plays out in a world where the mook you’re interrogating might suddenly grow an extra dozen eyeballs, or where a person’s shadow might have some tentacles attached. Hammers is set in modern-day Croydon, London, where John person might get called a “wog” but where he can also move freely in his brown borrowed body. It’s in the sequel, A Song for Quiet, that Khaw enters into the more direct conversation LaValle is already having with Lovecraft. The story steps back in time (reference is made to Roosevelt, but not to WWII, so I’m assuming it’s the late 1930s) and life is segregated. Our grieving narrator, Deacon James, is travelling to Rhode Island on a northbound train after his father’s funeral. His only inheritance is his father’s saxophone. He carries it with him, along with a sleeping demon, curled and waiting inside his soul. Deacon inadvertently stumbles into a white man’s cabin, and the man turns on him, throwing a particular slur at him. Khaw uses the word like an un-tripped bomb. It sits there in the middle of the scene, seething, never written on paper, growing in its contempt and hatred.

The man swills a word in his mouth, the syllables convulsing his face into a snarl, and Deacon can already hear it loud. After all, he’s heard it ten thousand times before, can read its coming in the upbeat alone. Sang, spat, or smoothed through the smile of an angel. Every variation of delivery, every style of excuse, every explanation for why it ain’t nothing but a word for people like him, innocent as you please. Yes, Deacon’s heard it all.

But what’s truly stunning is that at the end of the scene an attendant walks into the section, sees the group, and admonishes Deacon, saying “You know you people ain’t allow in this carriage!” the fight doesn’t matter, who’s right or wrong doesn’t matter—all that matters is that people stay in their place. Unlike the state-sanctioned racist murder of Ballad, Khaw shows us the everyday civilian racism that allows the “bigger” crimes to occur, the kind that eats away at the marrow of the country and allows more monstrous cancers to gain purchase. We don’t see how the rest of the confrontation plays out, though, because John Persons walks in and tries to extract the eldritch horror from Deacon, and Deacon flees.

This is the point in both books where the heroes have to make a decision. Our main characters have been confronted with hatred, of both the human and the eldritch variety. Deacon will have to wrestle with a world that contains Old Gods, a magical woman, and a private eye who might be able to help him. And Tommy needs to decide whether he can work for Suydam, or exact some sort of vengeance n the wake of his father’s death.

Tommy Tester leaves Harlem, and plays his father’s conjure song on the train platform all day, travels back to Suydam’s house, and in the middle of Suydam’s big, meaningless speech about bringing about a new age, and making the assembled group of gangsters and cutthroats kings of a new era, Tom steps through the door and goes Outside. He makes his own deal, and corrects his past mistake.

LaValle, wisely I think, doesn’t show us the deal, only the aftermath. Tommy Tester is dead, replaced by “Black Tom”, an implacable enforcer who appears to be going about Suydam’s business, until Suydam, Howard, and Malone all learn that he is not. He avenges his father and mother by creating a song “all his own”, and pulling the plug on this world, telling Malone, “I’ll take Cthulhu over you devils any day.”

LaValle gives us an epilogue of sorts from Malone’s point-of-view: the white man can’t remember everything. He goes to such therapy as is available in the 1920s, and he makes himself forget, for a time. LaValle recreates Malone’s freak out from “The Horror at Red Hook”, but gives it a different context—it isn’t that tall buildings upset him, it’s that he sees a face in the clouds that reminds him that humanity’s clock is running out. He knows this, he knows that Black Tom made a deal and created a planet of walking dead men. But he can’t tell anyone…and even if he did, what could anyone do to stop it? LaValle literalizes the old Lovecraftian trope of the man who goes mad from seeing too much, because Black Tom just goes ahead and cuts Malone’s eyelids off. Try ignoring reality when you can’t look away, sucker.

In Deacon’s case, he tries to keep his head down, stay in the Black parts of town, and use music to mourn his lost father. He simultaneously conjures a circle of protection around his (all Black) audiences, and endangers them, because the Old One who has infected him demands dark and dangerous songs from him. This is what attracts the attention of Ana, the young woman who becomes the true hero of the book. Like Deacon, she is an Old One’s unwilling host, but like Black Tom, is fed up with sirring and ma’aming and crushing herself to live in a white world. She decides to unleash the monster in her head and end the world, spurning John Persons’ help, and trying to ignore Deacon.

But Deacon, for all that his life has been crushed by racism and poverty, thinks that the world has to keep turning so people will get better. He chooses hope, and in the end it is that hope that stands between Ana’s wrath and all of life. While Tom has no one left to turn to in his story, Khaw gives Ana Deacon, and Deacon, Ana, and together they make a decision independent of John Persons’ machinations, of the Old One’s desires, and the power plays of the white mainstream.

Both books play with the ideas of incantations. Yes, Ballad has a prominent use of “Gorgo, Mormo, thousand-faced moon” and a cryptic alphabet written in blood, and the Persons Non Grata books have John Persons extractions of demons, but far more important are the every day incantations that are used to get through life in a country that despises you. I was especially struck by the power of the word “sir”. Both books use it, but it’s never a term of respect—only ever a Black man’s attempt to placate a white man. Tommy Tester uses it on Suydam, Howard, and Malone, and Deacon James uses it on the white men in the train, but it’s use is always performative, never genuine. It’s a kind of prayer for peace. It’s worth noting, I think, that this incantation never works.

But LaValle and Khaw don’t just give us a weak, flailing attempt at pacifism. They both give their characters a much stronger weapon, because standing against “sir” in LaValle and Khaw’s is music. In both books, Tommy and Deacon are given music by their fathers—in Tommy’s case, his father teaches him Son House’s “Grinnin’ in Your Face”, and in Deacon’s his father wills him a saxophone when he dies. A conductor on Deacon’s train hums “Hard Luck Child” “like a prayer for the working man” and Ana, the true hero of A Song for Quiet, is revealed through her singing voice.

Just as important as the idea of music, however, is the type of song the characters choose. Deacon and Tommy sing classic blues songs and spirituals written by Black men who were never recognized or paid properly for their art—singers who would be considered fringe artists at best, until years later when white fans anointed them legends. In Ballad, Tommy sings “Grinnin’ in Your Face” with the hook: “I said bear this in mind, a true friend is hard to find. Don’t mind people grinning in your face” and uses it to lull Suydam into believing that Tommy is going along with his script, right until the moment when he goes Outside, and becomes Black Tom. The songs Deacon plays for his audience in Providence are dark—he starts with Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Word Blues”, before segueing into a medley of Son House, Skip James, and Blind Willie Johnson—“…all the old men who’d been bled of their fancies, whittled to bad dreams and worse habits, their music too sad for a country sick of trying.”

These songs are for themselves, for the people who have had to fight to make it in a world that was never meant for them, who have had to find a way to keep living after facing up to human horror, and now need a weapon against celestial horror as well. This is Southern, Folk, Black, Americana, grabbing Cthulhu by the tentacles and asking him to dance. It’s a kind of horror fiction that can only be made now, in the cultural blender of the 21st Century, and it’s is showing the genre a new path forward.

When you read a book you are one mind touching another. You are created by your life, the circumstances into which you’re born, the parents you have, or don’t have, the money in the bank account, the education you can access. All of this comes with you into a book when you read, yet I would also say, with something that is maybe naivete and maybe hope, that in reading more than anything else you can leave those circumstances if you need to. Set them aside. Take a breath.

So dig, if you will, the idea that an African-American boy in Queens, and a Southeast Asian woman in London, who each fall in love with the weird twisty words of one H.P. Lovecraft. While I’ll admit that I prefer the blood-splattered nihilism of The Ballad of Black Tom to Khaw’s gentler take in Persons Non Grata, I think it’s vital to look at these two works, and see how one man’s complicated, troubling body of work, stuffed with all of his hatreds and insecurities, can inspire such different modern tales. I can’t wait to hear the next twist in the conversation.

The Ballad of Black Tom and Hammers on Bone are available October 10th as part of our Reimagining Lovecraft ebook bundle, along with Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Agents of Dreamland, and Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe.

Leah Schnelbach wants to wrap both of these books up in a tentacley hug. Come sing her an eldritch song on Twitter!

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